HMP Holloway is the largest women’s prison in Europe. Its size and poor design make it a difficult establishment to run and in which to meet the complex needs of the often very vulnerable women held. Over many years, repeat inspections have been very critical of the treatment and conditions of the women held there. However, this inspection was the most positive yet. At a time when the women’s custodial estate is being reviewed, the significant advantages of the prison’s location should be set against its poor design. Most women, particularly the most vulnerable, were held safety and treated decently. Women said they valued being held close to their families and a wide range of community agencies provided good support.
Inspection by HMCIP 28 May-7 June 2013, report compiled August 2013, published Tuesday 15th October 2013
– inspectors were concerned to find that:
– women spent long periods in escort vehicles shared with men before arriving at the prison;
– the unwieldy layout of the buildings make them difficult to supervise and although most women said they felt safe, more than at similar prisons said otherwise;
– the prison did not do enough to help women maintain or rebuild positive relationships with their children and families;
– while there were enough activity places for the population, too few were used and a process to move prisoners to activities was not working; and
– achievement levels and the quality of teaching needed attention, as well as punctuality and attendance.
– Pregnancy and the care of children was a critical issue for many of the women held.
– Mother and baby unit was underused but decent and safe. Its environment was not as good as we have seen elsewhere
– the central location of the prison facilitated the mothers’ contact with their family, friends and community.
– Inspectors made 80 recommendations
Introduction from the report
HMP Holloway is the largest women’s prison in Europe. Its size and poor design make it a very difficult establishment to run and in which to meet the complex needs of the often very vulnerable women held. Over many years, repeat inspections by this inspectorate have been very critical of the treatment and conditions of the women held there.
However, this inspection was the most positive we have yet made. Despite the constraints of the physical environment and its size, most women, particularly the most vulnerable, were held safely and treated decently – although some significant shortcomings remained. At a time when the women’s custodial estate is being reviewed, the significant advantages of the prison’s location should be set against its poor design. Women told us they valued being held close to their families and communities, and an exceptionally wide range of community agencies provided good support.
Escort arrangement vividly illustrated the need for services specifically commissioned to meet the needs of women. Women spent long periods in escort vehicles shared with men before arriving at the prison. Some vehicles did not have privacy screening, exposing women to the possibility of intimidation and abuse. Male prisoners were delivered first because the receptions at men’s prisons had a fixed cut-off time; Holloway accepted women at whatever time they arrived.
Once at the prison, reception and first night arrangement were good: staff stayed until all women were processed and had settled down for the night. The content of induction was satisfactory but some women needed information to be reinforced.
There were few serious violent incidents and the prison was very proactive in managing problematic behaviour. The incentives and earned privileges (lEP) scheme was used robustly to tackle bullies, and multi-disciplinary complex case meetings discussed individual women whose problematic behaviour was often linked to their mental health needs. Similarly, support for those who self-harmed or who were otherwise vulnerable was better than we normally see. The number of self-harm incidents had dropped from 143 a month at the time of our last inspection to 63 a month at this inspection. It was notable that there had not been a self-inflicted death since 2007. Levels of self-harm had decreased considerably but, as with most women’s prisons, the actual number remained high. Where women did require high levels of support this was given sensitively; there was no use of strip clothing and there was interactive engagement with women who required continuous monitoring, rather than the bleak, passive observation through the bars of a gated cell which we saw too often in the past. The Timeline initiative, which involved the consistent, detailed analysis of wing observation books to identify risks to the safety of individual women from others or themselves, was good practice and should be used elsewhere.
Security arrangements were generally proportionate and discipline processes well managed. Use of force was low and women in segregation were well looked after. A large number of women were held in segregation while on an open assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management document for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm, and this needed better scrutiny to ensure the ‘exceptional circumstances’ criteria were always met.
The use of illicit drugs was relatively low and the potential for misuse of diverted mediations well managed. Work to develop a recovery focus around substance misuse was developing, and support for those with substance misuse problems was good, although some prescribing issues needed to be resolved.
Despite all this, although most women told us they felt safe, more than at similar prisons told us this was not so. This was not surprising. Over half the women held told us that they were in prison for the first time. Holloway has a fearsome reputation and the unwieldy layout of the buildings make them difficult to supervise. The dormitory accommodation, now shared by a maximum of four, while welcome by some for the companionship it provided, was stressful if those sharing were not compatible. Although levels of physical violence were low, verbal aggression, thefts and bullying could be very intimidating. Some women undoubtedly resented the robust use of the IEP scheme, although we accepted this was in the interests of the majority of women held.
Staff-prisoner relationships were generally good and personal officer work much improved, although links to resettlement were still limited. Equality and diversity work needed to improve for disabled and older women. Help was poorly coordinated, information was not effectively shared and there were significant limitations in the physical building for those with mobility issues.
Health care was reasonable and access good, although limited sometimes by the lack of escort staff. Mental health services were good but women had to wait too long for transfers to hospital.
Pregnancy and the care of children was a critical issue for many of the women held. The mother and baby unit was underused but decent and safe. Its environment was not as good as we have seen elsewhere but the central location of the prison facilitated the mothers’ contact with their family, friends and community. During the inspection, one woman and her baby were released on temporary licence for the day so that they could visit her own mother; an important family contact that would have been much more difficult if the woman had been held further away from her home. Although health and social care planning for pregnant women was good, some practical matters – such as the provision of a comfortable mattress – were overlooked.
Although its location helped, the prison did not do enough to help women maintain or rebuild positive relationships with their children and families. Telephones lacked privacy, visits often started late and women had to wear bibs to identify themselves during visits. As at our last inspection, work to support prisoner’s families and help women with their relationships was underdeveloped.
Purposeful activity was the weakest area of the prison. Time out of cell was reasonable for those in activities but much poorer for women who only had a part-time or no activity place and for those on the basic IEP level. Outside exercise periods were too short.
While there were enough activity places for the population, too few were used. A revised process to move prisoners to activities was not working – there was no shared understanding of where women were supposed to be and when, or of whether they actually got there. Consequently, punctuality and attendance were poor. Achievement levels and the quality of teaching also needed attention. There were too few vocational training places.
There was an impressive range of partner organisations involved in delivering the reducing reoffending pathways. Women had their needs assessed on arrival and pre-release, and although planning and coordination required improvement, the sheer scale and variety of provision usually meant women could access the support they required. The offender management unit had recently re-formed and was still settling down, but work with women who posed the highest risk was sound.
Some of Holloway’s most significant strengths and weaknesses are outside its direct control. Its location is a major strength, its size and design a major weakness. However, there are things it can do to mitigate its weaknesses and build on its strengths. More needs to be done to ensure that the impressive progress on safety is securely embedded, and women’s remaining and real anxieties better understood and addressed. Better provision of activity would make the prison a safer and more respectful place. Family support work is surprisingly underdeveloped and yet it is of critical importance to the women held, and something that Holloway should be well placed to deliver effectively. Nevertheless, overall, although there is still more to do, this remains the most positive inspection this inspectorate has yet made of HMP Holloway.